Kapur to take relationship to ‘highest level'
An author at 20, a Chevening scholar to Oxford and an énarque from France’s l’ENA, Pooja Kapur, the new Ambassador of India to Denmark talks to The International about her first impressions, Indians in Denmark and how her country is coping with the pandemic’s devastating current wave.
Text: Conrad Egbert
It’s been a little over two months since the new Ambassador of India to Denmark stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac at Copenhagen airport in Kastrup. Yet Pooja Kapur has been as busy as a bumblebee in the spring. Between settling into her Hellerup residence, sourcing a competent chef and keeping on top of the shattering Covid situation in India, she’s also managed to present herself to the Danish Queen Margrethe II, sipped tea with the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and personally taken stock of a shipment of vaccines flown in from India for UN peacekeepers in Denmark. Previously, Kapur was Ambassador to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, and served in various capacities at Indian embassies and High Commissions around the world from Brussels and Paris to London and Kuala Lumpur.
A Chevening Scholar at the University of Oxford, Kapur holds three Master’s degrees including one in Political Science from Delhi University and another in Public Administration from the coveted, but now defunct, French Ecole Nationale D’Administration (l’ENA) in Paris – a grande école that has in the past, not only trained senior French officials for public service, but also produced the largest number of French presidents and prime ministers than any other French institution, including the current President Emmanuel Macron and his Prime Minister Jean Castex. But in April earlier this year, Macron announced the closure of l’ENA due to several reasons, including for being most infamously, elitist.
“I’m aware that the French have always considered l’ENA elitist,” says Kapur who prides herself on skilfully walking that tricky rope between being outspoken and politically correct, “But personally, I don’t believe it’s elitist. In fact, I think the quality of education at l’ENA is very high. But this is a problem everywhere, not only in France – when institutions achieve a certain standard, people begin to view them as elitist. Even in India, the Foreign Service and the Indian Administrative Service are considered elitist, but they’re not; they’re open to everyone.” Kapur believes that these institutions work for the greater good, but this gets lost in all the rhetoric that’s put out there. “When I was at l’ENA,” she continues, “I can tell you there were people from all over France and from all strata of society. It didn’t seem elitist at all. On the contrary, there’s a real work ethic there. In fact, it was a very strenuous course that ran from nine a.m. to nine p.m. everyday. I agree it is an elite school, but by virtue of the quality of education it delivers, not because it is discriminatory. I’d call it elite, but not elitist.” Kapur cites an example from her time at l’ENA at the turn of the millennium in 1999, when she was on duty on New Year’s Eve. “All my friends were bringing in the New Year on the Champs-Elysées,” she complains, though in good humour, “While I was on duty monitoring the law and order situation as a stagiaire [intern] at the prefecture of Nanterre. That’s not very elitist, is it?” Kapur, who insists she remains an “énarque” despite the dissolution of l’ENA, proudly pointed to a photograph of her graduation ceremony on her Facebook page with the late Nelson Mandela. “Some moments can never be taken away from you, no matter what,” she reminisces fondly.
Kapur, who has not only amassed degrees from top institutions around the world, but more importantly, enhanced her ‘cultural education’ from postings in Europe and beyond, is quite possibly one of very few Indians, if not the only one, to have attended both l’ENA and Oxford, which places her in a rather advantageous position – one that can offer us a unique and unbiased perspective of both institutions. “Oxford and l’ENA are very different,” says the January-born Capricorn who also happens to share a birthday with the Duchess of Cambridge. “The Oxford dons were very impressed that I’d been to l’ENA,” she laughs, “They seemed to hold it in very high regard and considered it a formidable competitor. But I think Oxford is in several respects quite like Delhi University, although Oxford is prettier. It’s a great place to live and study and the professors are excellent, but then so is the faculty at Delhi University. I think what’s really special about Oxford, is that it’s a university town, so everything revolves around the university. There’s a great social and intellectual circuit where in the evenings you can attend lectures and debates, go out for dinners, pop down for a mandatory visit to the pub and basically enjoy an all-round fantastic vibe. However, there is a particular pride, that of ‘We are Oxford.’ I’d always wanted to go to Oxford and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to do so, but often I would hear things like ‘This is Oxford, we have tutorials here.’ And I’d say ‘Yes, but we have tutorials in Delhi University too, among a lot of other good things.’ Indian Universities are brilliant, but people don’t know this because we don’t market or sell education quite like some countries in the world do. In my experience, the quality of education at Oxford and Delhi University was comparable.”
Kapur, who was a bit of a prodigy in school and published her first book on government and politics at the age of twenty, joined the Indian Civil Service in 1996, touting it as her dream job since she was only seven.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” says Kapur who still uses her maiden name. “Since my father was in the Indian Administrative Service and I was daddy’s little girl, I wanted to do what daddy did,” she jokes. “It was a bit of a challenge at first, because in India if you’re a bright student, you’re pushed into the sciences – medicine or engineering – but fortunately my parents were pretty liberal. I remember having to take my mother into school to have a tough talk with the principal and the faculty, just to allow me to take humanities. They were absolutely horrified. They thought I was going to ruin my life, which in retrospect would have probably been true if I hadn’t made it,” she laughs.
Kapur says she turned down several scholarships from the US and the UK, in order to be able to sit the Indian Civil Service exam. Forget Oxford and l’ENA, she says if anything truly tested her abilities to the limit, it was the Indian Civil Service Exam.
"I think Oxford is quite like Delhi University"
“It’s one of the toughest exams in the world,” says the Chevening scholar from Delhi. “And the reason it’s so tough is not only because of the breadth and depth of general knowledge that one is tested in, but because it’s also an endurance test.” According to Kapur, the entire process takes eighteen months from start to finish. “You register in January, in June you sit for the preliminary exams, which when I sat for them, were taken by around one million people. From among them, only the top ten thousand are selected, who then make it to the main exam, which takes place in October. In this exam, in addition to your main subject, you have to take an additional one, plus general studies, which requires a pretty high level of knowledge across several disciplines from maths and science to current affairs. The top two thousand are invited for interviews and from among them the top five hundred make it into the top twenty-six civil services. But in order to make it into the diplomatic service, one has to be among the top fifty candidates. So yes, it’s pretty tough.” With diplomacy now firmly in the bag, coupled with a desperate need for progressive and educated politicians in India, will Kapur naturally saunter into politics?
“No,” she says and quite firmly too. “I’m a career diplomat, so for another ten years or so this is what I expect to be doing. Of course, I’ve thought about it, especially during my time at l’ENA, because in the French system you’re free to go in and out of politics as you please, but this is not the case in the Indian system; you cannot leave the Foreign Service to enter politics and then return. Plus I doubt I’d be very good at collecting votes,” she laughs. “But I would very much like to work for my country and I think, I can serve it best as a diplomat.”
Kapur, who seems to have punched above her weight all her life and is now at the top of her game, has a poignant message for all students and scholars especially those aiming for the stars.
“Chase your dreams, because they’re easier to achieve than you might imagine.” But she also warns that achieving them depends entirely on hard work and how focused one is. “Yes, a bit of luck matters, but as they say, fortune favours the brave and dedicated. That’s my lesson from life, anyway.”
But what brings Kapur to the not-so-sunny-climes of Denmark? With the world as her oyster one would imagine she’d prefer postings in the US, Italy or even Australia?
“I have an enduring interest in Europe and so I was fortunate to be chosen as Ambassador to Denmark,” says Kapur matter-of-factly. “Europe and the Indo-Pacific are my areas of expertise, I’ve also studied in the UK and France, so professionally being in Europe makes great sense. It is helpful at the personal level too,” she reveals, “for my family lives in London and the proximity definitely helps.”
Kapur is married to Ashwani Aggarwal, ex-investment banker; Chartered Accountant and Managing partner at London based Ash & Associates. Together, they have a 17 year old son, who boards and is an academic scholar at the famous elite all-boys Harrow School in London. But due to the pandemic, Kapur has been unable to see her family in almost a year and while Denmark is definitely closer to them than her last posting in Bulgaria, borders still remain closed and travel difficult.
“I really do miss them,” says Kapur, a proud Punjabi mother. “My son is really the finest kid one could wish for. But I haven’t seen him or my husband for almost a year because of Covid-19. It’s been a very tough year and video calls are just not the same as the real thing, but I guess we all do whatever best we can.”
Kapur took over at the Embassy in March this year, which means she’s only been in Denmark for just over two months. What are her first impressions?
“When I first got here, it wasn’t so much the cold as it was the wind that took me by surprise,” marvels Kapur, “and then I realised why they’re leaders in wind energy. But also what struck me was how friendly and polite Danish people are; and they speak excellent English.” But of course she agrees that her experience is limited mostly to Copenhagen and the Capital Region, but on being challenged, refuses to relegate her experience down to being trapped in a bubble. “When I say people are friendly, I’m not talking about official meetings; officially we live in a bubble, I get that, but I’m talking about people in the street who don’t know me and who can obviously make out that I’m a foreigner. Whenever I’ve approached somebody for directions or anything like that, they’ve always made an effort to be helpful and polite. I have Danish friends and I’m fully aware that people think Danes are reserved with foreigners, but I haven’t experienced that.”
But now that the India-Nordic summit that was meant to happen this month has been postponed, will the relationship between the two countries cool off?
“India’s relationship with Denmark is very important. Last year both our prime ministers entered into the first-ever Green Strategic Partnership. Denmark and India have always been close allies. We’ve had a 400-year-old commercial relationship; Denmark was a development partner and helped us with the ‘white revolution’ or dairy revolution as it were, which in turn, was part of a bigger agricultural revolution in India at the time. Today India is the largest global producer of milk and Denmark was a key partner in providing Jersey cows and other things in the 1970s. In the years that followed, India began to grow and come into her own, but the partnership remained and has now evolved and turned into a mutually beneficial one focused on things like green transition, circular economy, renewable and wind energy, waste to energy, waste management and even water.”
Leading Danish companies Vestas and LM Wind Power are among those that Kapur said work closely with India. She also revealed that India is currently in talks to set up wind energy projects and on the verge of signing an MOU on health. Some 2000 Danish companies work with India in some capacity, while 200 of them operate within India. Kapur says she hopes to take this to the “highest level” during her three-year mandate in Denmark.
"No one’s safe until everyone’s safe"
“I called on the Danish Prime Minister last month and she said, ‘its interesting that a small country like Denmark and a big country like India are collaborating so well’ and I said ‘Yes, perhaps its because we both have such inspiring stories,” relates Kapur. “Denmark has it’s own inspiring story from where it was a hundred years ago to where it is now. It has really transformed itself and so has India. Of course India has a 5000 years old history and has reinvented itself again and again. But when people say ‘India is emerging,’ I have to correct them and say, ‘No, it’s re-emerging.’ India has always been a massive influence on the world and the only country on the planet with an ocean named after it – that itself should tell you something about its historical significance. India has always worked on the basis of soft power rather than hard power. Historically, whether it’s the number system, medicine or even the art of navigation, our contribution is unmatched, but you don’t always read about it because a lot of literature and history is very Eurocentric. Before the British came to India, we contributed as much as a quarter of the global GDP. I think India is now reclaiming its rightful place at the high table.”
But while India’s incredible history might very well be a feather in its hat, it’s the devastating Covid-19 situation that is currently making headlines around the world. How has the situation been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent?
“As a country, India has always been collaborative,” explains Kapur, “And we wanted to continue to be so even during this very difficult pandemic. India is the pharmacy of the world; we delivered medicines to over a hundred and fifty countries and vaccines to over eighty countries under the humanitarian Vaccine Maitri initiative, which included supplying vaccines to UN peacekeeping missions and UN health workers. It was only after we were taken by a surprise second wave with an intensity and suddenness on a scale that was neither projected nor expected, that we had to suspend vaccine exports and re-evaluate things.”
But despite India housing the largest vaccine production facility in the world, is it not strange that the leadership failed to inoculate and take care of its own people first?
“We were taking care of our own, while also taking care of the world,” explains Kapur emphatically. “The mantra is that ‘no one’s safe until everyone’s safe’. We were trying to do our bit, but unfortunately got somewhat blindsided by the ferocity of this new wave. None of the earlier studies projected that the second wave could have turned out to be worse than the first one. On the contrary, the incidence and mortality rates of India’s first wave were far lower than the world average and our recovery rate was far higher, so we were quite confident that we’d put in place the right measures. And while everybody knew that a second wave would come and we’d made several facilities available that weren’t there during the first wave, the expectation was of a milder second wave. And then we got hit with a double mutant. In Northern India where the biggest spike occurred, it was actually the B.1.1.7, (found in the UK) that was the dominant variant; the B.1.617 variant, was the one that spread in the south. According to some studies, in the last wave, the risk of infection was 4 out of 10 people, while in the current wave it is 9 out of 10 people.”
Kapur, who expresses her deepest sadness over the current situation in India, reveals that like many others, her family too fell victim to Covid-19.
“In the last three weeks, I have lost three uncles to Covid, two maternal, one paternal. It’s terrifying, especially when you’re abroad and you don’t know what to do. My parents live in Delhi and I’m constantly worried about them. But my unwavering advice to people is to be safe and stay home when the contagion is high and not interact with other people as far as possible. And wherever there has been loss of life, my deepest condolences and if there’s any way that the embassy here in Denmark can assist, please contact us and we’ll do whatever we can.”
Indians in Denmark are Ambassadors for India
Indian diasporas everywhere are in their own little ways ambassadors to those countries where they reside. When a person on the street thinks of India or Indians, they think of the Indian diaspora in their country. And I think each one of them, therefore, has a very important duty to represent India in the best way possible. I know that the Indian community in Denmark is doing a good job of that; Indians are very well respected here. They not only contribute positively to the Danish community in their respective spheres, but they’re also a community which blends in well and which does not create trouble. While the Indian Danish community has a great affinity for their home country of course, they also have a great sense of responsibility towards Denmark and I think that is how it should be ideally and I encourage them to continue being such great ambassadors for India.
Covid-19 Emergency Aid for India
1. Danish government sent 53 ventilators
2. Minister for Development Aid pledged 1 million euros to the Indian Red Cross
3. Maersk offered to carry all oxygen related equipment for free
4. Novo Nordisk pledged 10 million DKK to set up mobile hospitals and other emergency
5. Indian Danish Chamber of Commerce sent 92 oxygen concentrators
6. Other companies including Grundfos (DKK 0.84 million) and Danfoss (DKK 0.21 million)
7. The Indian community in Denmark has sent several thousand euros through NGOs that
One can also contribute to India’s PM Cares Fund at www.pmcares.gov.in